Food trucks for Hong Kong? Restaurant owners back them, but some have doubts

As the food truck concept gathers momentum, some are unsure how the initiative can be rolled out effectively and fairly

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 17 March, 2015, 6:30am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 17 March, 2015, 7:03pm

Pulled barbecue pork ribs in a steamed bao sandwich, anyone? The possibilities, most agree, are endless. Chefs and foodies relish the prospect of bringing in food trucks - an idea that Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah raised in his recent budget address for adding diversity to the local food scene.

Apparently, Tsang was inspired by Chef, a feel-good American movie about a frustrated restaurant cook who finds creative and business success instead with a food truck; but will his proposal find a Hollywood ending in Hong Kong?

Following the success of cross-cultural ventures such as Roy Choi's Kogi (Korean taco) in Los Angeles, food trucks have proliferated across the United States in the past four years. The format allows would-be restaurateurs to venture where stiff rents and other overheads might have stopped them in their tracks in the wake of the global financial crisis.

Similar ventures have sprung up in major cities from London to Montreal, where mobile kitchens began serving a range of freshly made, high-quality food rather than just the dodgy pies, kebabs and simple Tex-Mex meals that were associated with the trucks.

Well-travelled foodies such as Mandy Soh, a senior hotel executive, see the potential of food trucks "to not only bring in dishes from around the world but to resurrect the local street food culture".

Mister Softee ice cream trucks aside, Hong Kong has already rolled out one food truck - Black Betty, operated by The Butchers Club restaurant group. But while other trucks can be driven, Black Betty has to be towed to events.

"The idea of this truck was for us to use it for promotional purposes, special events like Clockenflap and private functions," says Aarik Persaud, the group's executive chef. "It's technically an empty shell that we use for marketing purposes - and it has worked."

Despite their anticipation, many restaurateurs suspect that the regulatory framework may prove to be a stumbling block to trucks taking off here.

Food trucks are not unlike local food hawkers' carts of old. But the government has long discouraged hawkers for hygiene and traffic congestion reasons; new hawker licences have not been issued since the 1970s for either fixed-pitch (dai pai dong and the like) or itinerant hawkers (including ice cream vendors), so planners are not about to dismantle their licensing policy soon.

That's why Commerce Secretary Gregory So Kam-leung hopes food trucks can first be rolled out without amending existing legislation. New trucks will, at least initially, operate under a food factory licence. Conditions for such licences require the business to be conducted in a fixed spot - giving rise to the odd situation of having food wagons that can't actually go anywhere.

The minister sees food trucks being located in designated spots on a trial basis. After these have been in operation for some time and officials have more experience, the government will make relevant legal amendments and increase the mobility of the trucks, So says. Meanwhile, the government is studying hygiene issues and other support measures for the initiative.

To Swiss chef Gregoire Michaud, a co-founder of Bread Elements bakery, there's no point in having food trucks that are immobile.

"The idea here is to offer people different food options at different time of the day, week or month," he says.

"Food trucks must not become a 'quick fix' for the real estate problem Hong Kong restaurateurs are facing; they must become a new food and beverage offer."

Although Michaud recognises the need for curbs on where trucks can be parked, given the potential for congestion in the city's crowded streets, he worries that the scheme may result in the biggest companies securing prime venues, as developers have done in land sales.

"For example, if everyone knows that parking near the IFC makes big sales, every food truck in town will want to get a share of it," he says. "So the question is how to be fair with everyone, or will it fall into yet another scheme where the richest get the best spot like in real estate?"

The addition of food trucks would only make our dining scene more diverse and interesting
Tony Cheng, Drawing Room Concepts

For all the misgivings, Malcolm Wood, director of Maximal Concepts restaurant group, believes having any kind of food truck would be better than having none at all. "Better faking it that not have it, right?" he says.

Tony Cheng, CEO of Drawing Room Concepts restaurant group, sees successful food trucks as those that specialise in specific dishes as their small kitchens are only suitable for making one or two items well.

Such a venture would work if the truck was constantly shifting to different locations, selling to a different crowd, although operators would find it difficult to always please the same crowd with the same menu, Cheng says.

"Part of the appeal of a food truck is that it isn't always there, you can't just go and have it whenever you like. If the food is good then it all adds to the fun, to some extent people always want what they can't have."

Still, given the chance, what would restaurateurs serve in a food truck?

Wood, whose restaurants include Blue Butcher and Mott 32, has a concept serving comfort food in mind: "Food that people crave week in week out, slow cooked food served fast, burgers, tacos, sliders or even fresh juices."

For his part, Michaud envisages an operation dishing up "fine food at street prices; for example, great sandwiches made with fresh sourdough bread, toasted and filled with insanely good preparations. But you could picture it as a tempura truck, oyster truck, dessert truck, dai pai dong truck … there is no limit," he says.

"Butchers Club founder Jon Glover has this idea of having multiple food trucks on the new Central Harbourfront, each serving different items, probably all local dim sum and other Chinese food," says executive chef Persaud. "This would appeal to tourists and locals alike."

The president of the Association of Coffee and Tea and the Federation of Restaurants and Related Trades, Simon Wong Ka-wo, has already signalled interest in bringing out a truck serving the ubiquitous milk tea. Wong estimates it would cost him about HK$500,000 to buy a truck, and have it remodelled and fitted with kitchen equipment.

While others have reservations about the government's vision for trucks at fixed spots, Wong believes it would be easier to introduce trucks under existing rules.

"If you draw up new regulations specifically for food trucks, the matter will become more complicated as it has to pass through Legco," he says.

Several sites are suitable for parking these trucks, including Golden Bauhinia Square, beaches and outlying islands, he says.

The move to introduce food trucks strikes some as a policy U-turn, because it's the government which pulled hawkers and dai pai dongs off the streets. However, So insists that introducing food trucks "is not the same as reissuing hawker licences".

"We will study the issue from a tourism perspective. Capital investment for each truck will come to about several hundred thousand dollars, which is lower than the cost of running a restaurant. We hope the venture can attract more young people to start their own businesses," the minister said this month. "We believe they can make use of their creativity and design different kinds of food to attract customers."

Yet even as she looks forward to gourmet food trucks rolling out tasty new dishes, foodie Mandy Soh hopes the initiative will also help bring back street foods such as cheung fun (steamed rice rolls) and red bean custard. Many traditional snacks are hard to find since the government pushed the hawkers that sold them off the streets, she says.

"Little hawker stalls have been part of the history of Hong Kong. They are a part of the culture that is disappearing."

However, restaurateur Cheng has a slightly different take.

"Hawkers and dai pai dong are a really important part of Hong Kong's heritage and food culture and they should be protected," he says. "But the addition of food trucks would only make our dining scene more diverse and interesting. It isn't competition that is putting dai pai dongs out of business; it is rent and licensing issues."